The Kremlin’s Holy Warrior

The spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church has blessed Vladimir Putin’s Syrian intervention as a sacred crusade. Jihadis in Syria happen to agree.

Russian Orthodox Church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin (C) attends a rally to support the Russian Orthodox church in Moscow, on April 21, 2012. AFP PHOTO / ANDREY SMIRNOV (Photo credit should read ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian Orthodox Church spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin (C) attends a rally to support the Russian Orthodox church in Moscow, on April 21, 2012. AFP PHOTO / ANDREY SMIRNOV (Photo credit should read ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — Weeks before the Turkish military shot a Russian jet out of the skies near the Syria-Turkey border, before video footage showed Turkmen rebels apparently standing over the body of one of the jet’s pilots, reveling in his death, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin gave his blessing to the Russian intervention in the Middle East.

“The fight with terrorism is a holy battle,” said Chaplin, a prominent spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, in an interview with Russia’s Interfax news service in late September. “And today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it.”

MOSCOW — Weeks before the Turkish military shot a Russian jet out of the skies near the Syria-Turkey border, before video footage showed Turkmen rebels apparently standing over the body of one of the jet’s pilots, reveling in his death, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin gave his blessing to the Russian intervention in the Middle East.

“The fight with terrorism is a holy battle,” said Chaplin, a prominent spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, in an interview with Russia’s Interfax news service in late September. “And today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it.”

This sort of rhetorical excess might have passed unnoticed if Chaplin had felt compelled to backtrack or if the Russian government saw fit to repudiate his comments. But the reality was just the opposite. With some 70 percent of Russians identifying as Orthodox Christians, the Kremlin has relied on the church — and Chaplin, one of its public faces — to bolster public support for the Syrian war effort. The Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Kirill, a loyal Kremlin ally, also pitched in, praising what he described as Russia’s decision to “protect the Syrian people from the woes brought on by the tyranny of terrorists.”

Although Russians were initially skeptical, the church’s efforts — together with a propaganda blitz by state mediahelped convince them that military action in Syria was good for Russia and good for the world. In late September, just days ahead of the start of Russia’s airstrikes against forces opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a mere 14 percent of Russians indicated in a poll that they backed military intervention. By early October, a fresh survey showed that 72 percent were in favor of President Vladimir Putin’s decision to deploy Russian fighter jets to Syria.

But Russians weren’t the only ones paying attention to the church’s comments: In mid-October, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the official spokesman for the Islamic State, called for jihad against Russia. In a 40-minute audio message that also included an appeal for “Islamic youth” to “ignite” attacks against the United States, Adnani singled out Chaplin’s statement as evidence that Moscow was engaged in a “crusaders’ war” against Muslims. “Russia will be defeated,” he pledged.

Some two weeks later, on Oct. 31, a Russian passenger jet full of vacationers returning home from a popular Egyptian Red Sea resort broke up in midair, killing all 224 people on board. It was the deadliest aviation disaster in Russian and Soviet history. As the shattered aircraft lay smoldering in the Sinai desert, an Islamic State-affiliated group claimed responsibility and celebrated the deaths of what it called “Russian crusaders.” Although Russian and Egyptian officials initially dismissed the claim, Russia last week acknowledged that the airliner was, in fact, brought down by a bomb planted by fighters enraged, at least in part, by Chaplin’s “holy battle” comment.

When I visited Chaplin shortly after the airliner’s destruction, he didn’t appear to be a man wrestling with the consequences of his actions. The bearded 47-year-old member of the Russian Orthodox Church’s secular clergy insisted he did not intend to portray Russia’s military intervention in Syria as a “religious war,” but he also made no apologies for his provocative choice of words. “In the battle against terrorism, a spiritual and religious motivation is vital,” Chaplin told me, as we spoke in his central Moscow office, amid religious icons and theological tomes. “This is the highest form of motivation.”

A few weeks later, Chaplin’s convictions would again be tested, this time after the Nov. 24 downing of a Russian jet by the Turkish military, which claimed it had violated Turkey’s airspace. The jet’s two pilots ejected — but soon after, Turkmen rebels operating in Syria claimed credit for shooting at least one of the parachuting pilots out of the sky. A video shared online showed a group standing over his bruised and bloodied form. “This is a Russian pilot and killer of men, women, and children,” one of the men says.

Speaking that same day at a meeting of Russia’s Public Chamber, which advises the government, Chaplin appeared unfazed, barely mentioning the downing in passing and urging Russians onward. “We have neither terrorism nor extremism to fear,” he said. “Ideologically, spiritually, and morally, we will be stronger than any evil force.”

That Chaplin has the courage of his convictions seems clear; what’s less clear is whether, after the events of the past month, he’ll be able to convince Russians to follow.

* * *

Born in 1968 in Moscow, Chaplin, like the vast majority of believers in the officially atheist Soviet Union, was secretly baptized in childhood. He officially joined the church after finishing high school in the mid-1980s and began a slow but steady rise through the church’s ranks.

The more than 1,000-year-old Orthodox Church, after decades of repression during the Soviet era, came out from the shadows during the 1990s and the 2000s. For much of this time, Chaplin had something of a reputation as a liberal reformer among fellow church figures. But by the mid-2000s he had begun a lurch toward ultraconservatism and strident anti-Western views. He was appointed head of the church’s public affairs department in 2009, the same year that his mentor, Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev, was elected head of the church, becoming Patriarch Kirill.

It was around this same time that Putin, who had already been in power for almost a decade (and had never made a secret of what he says is his deep Christian faith), began to encourage the church to play a central role in Russia’s political and cultural life. Shaken by the mainly middle-class, largely pro-Western protests that hit Moscow in 2011-2012, Putin turned to Russia’s more conservative, more xenophobic heartland for support, taking strong stances on issues such as homosexuality and rights for minority groups. In 2011, Patriarch Kirill was granted residency in the Kremlin, a largely symbolic act that served to underline the power of the resurgent church. Putin also encouraged the church to build a relationship with the armed forces. It soon became a regular occurrence for priests to sprinkle Russian space rockets with holy water ahead of liftoff. The Orthodox Church has even held a religious service in honor of the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Today, Chaplin is considered the unofficial leader of Russia’s increasingly visible and at times violent Orthodox Christian radical activists, who have attacked gay rights activists and vandalized “blasphemous” art exhibitions in Moscow.

He has an apparently insatiable appetite for the spotlight and a knack for provocative rhetoric. In 2012, his willingness to speak to journalists made him the church’s de facto point man on the prosecution of the feminist punk rockers, Pussy Riot. In one interview, he alleged Pussy Riot’s infamous protest in Moscow’s largest cathedral was symbolic of the “satanic rage” that he said the country’s opposition forces had unleashed against the Orthodox Church. That same year, as the Kremlin geared up to introduce a law banning American families from adopting Russian children, Chaplin justified the law by saying children brought up in the United States would be unable to receive a “true Christian upbringing” and would be barred entry to “the Kingdom of God.”

“Such rhetoric was entirely acceptable not only for the church, but also Russian society, which proved ready for a wave of conservatism,” wrote Alexei Makarkin, a leading analyst with the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, in a recent profile of Chaplin.

Yet Chaplin doesn’t always want to accept that political rhetoric can have political consequences. He was clearly irritated by suggestions — including some in the Russian media — that he had brought the wrath of the Islamic State down on his homeland. And he was adamant about downplaying the significance of the Islamic State’s declaration of jihad. “This isn’t the first time jihad has been called against Russia,” he said, citing the Islamist insurgency in Russia’s mainly Muslim North Caucasus, which has raged with varying degrees of intensity for much of Putin’s long rule, as well as for parts of the 18th and 19th centuries. “And we have always emerged triumphant.”

It’s true that Russia put down an Islamic insurgency in the Caucasus region in the late 18th century, when Catherine the Great’s troops routed fighters loyal to Sheikh Mansur, a Chechen imam. In the 19th century, jihad was again declared against Russia by Imam Shamil, a fierce Dagestani fighter who remains a legendary figure in the North Caucasus to this day, despite his eventual capture by tsarist forces. In the post-Soviet period, Russia has fought two wars in Chechnya, which saw a spike in Islamic extremism from the early 2000s onward.

But what Chaplin didn’t mention is that modern Russia’s partial victories over Islamist extremism have come at a terrible cost: almost 2,000 people killed in dozens of deadly attacks across the country since Putin came to power. And more misery may be on the way: On Nov. 12, in an online video, the Islamic State threatened imminent atrocities inside Russia. “Soon, very soon, the blood will spill like an ocean,” the militant group promised.

But that’s not necessarily something that Chaplin would regret. In June, in an on-air tirade against what he called the “dead ideology of secularism,” Chaplin waxed lyrical about the “benefits” of war for Russia’s collective soul. “Peace will not last long,” he said. “God will redress the balance between religiousness and secularism by intervening in history and sending suffering.”

Recent tragic events have done nothing to soften his views. When I asked him if he felt even a modicum of responsibility for the death of Russian vacationers over Egypt, Chaplin looked up from the pile of documents that he had been signing off on throughout our conversation. “The plane crash in Egypt was necessary for Russian society,” he said. “Society saw death and realized that life in pursuit of entertainment, material well-being, holidays, and so on, is the incorrect way to live. This is an absurd way to live. If a person does not understand this, then God will remind him of it.”

It was an astonishing statement for one of the Russian Orthodox Church’s most high-profile representatives to make in the wake of a period of national mourning. I double-checked that he actually wanted to go on record saying that the loss of over 200 lives, including those of some 20 children, had a positive side. Chaplin clarified, but the overall gist remained the same: “Wars and catastrophes are necessary to keep people from becoming too convinced that they need to build lives for themselves here, on earth. That is a false belief. So while we feel sorry for those people who died, for the rest of society, yes, this was necessary.”

Putin, for his part, has never endorsed catastrophic losses of Russian life. But he does seem to agree with Chaplin’s assessment that religion is the only available bulwark against moral and societal collapse. “Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values,” Putin told a gathering of foreign experts and political analysts in the Novgorod region the autumn of 2013. “Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.”

When I reminded Chaplin of Putin’s words, he nodded in agreement. “The main problem between Russia and the West is not political, but something more serious — it is spiritual,” he said. Inspired, he launched into a blistering condemnation of what he calls the West’s “ungodly” belief in rationalism and secularism. “Rationality is one of the most monstrous cases of stupidity known to man,” he said. “We cannot know life through the intellect alone. The West must change or a worse catastrophe than that which has just befallen Russia is in store.” A catastrophe sent by God? “Of course,” Chaplin said, before returning to his endless pile of paperwork.

* * *

Chaplin’s reactionary piety has always competed with his rebellious spirit. An occasional visitor to Moscow’s Proekt OGI alternative music night club, he also writes dystopian fiction under the pseudonym Aron Shemaiyer.

And unlike the vast majority of his fellow priests, he has not hesitated to criticize the country’s secular authorities if he feels they are endangering the integrity of the nation. In August, he created a stir when he called for the replacement of Russia’s “tired, corrupt, and cynical elite” with a new generation of young Orthodox Christian believers. “There is much about the current political system that I do not like,” he told me, citing corruption and Russia’s shameful record of wealth inequality, which is among the highest in the world.

Even Putin has been put on notice. Although Patriarch Kirill supported his bid for a third presidential term in 2012, calling his long rule a “miracle of God,” Chaplin was hesitant when asked whether the church will back the ex-KGB man should he decide to run for a fourth time. “A lot depends on whether we can get out of this situation of economic stagnation, and if the country’s leaders, together with the people, can awaken the slumbering strength of the nation,” Chaplin said. “But the church today is not only people in cassocks. It is a large amount of active Orthodox laymen. These people cannot be ordered around, and will organize and speak out. They will determine Orthodox Christian opinion when the time comes for a change of power. And power will change in Russia, sooner or later. We need to start thinking about that today.”

Three days after our conversation, on Nov. 12, Chaplin initiated what is perhaps his greatest challenge yet to Russia’s political order, when he declared that the Orthodox Church considered itself “the equal of the state” and should enjoy the same powers as the government when it comes to “decisions that touch upon major church interests or are connected with the moral or spiritual dimension of life.” Ignoring the separation of church and state enshrined in Russia’s constitution, Chaplin announced: “Our voice, the voice of the majority, should be the defining one in the making of any decisions. No one can say ‘no’ to us.” Strikingly, no one from the Orthodox Church, including Patriarch Kirill, thought it necessary to admonish Chaplin over his undisguised contempt for Russian constitutional law.

Chaplin’s comments caused a minor sensation. “Will the Russian Orthodox Church become the Ministry of the Holy Spirit?” asked the mass-circulation Moskovsky Komsomolets tabloid. “One of the main understandings of [our] culture is the taboo that separates the world of the sacred and the world of the secular,” said Andrei Kurayev, a well-known Orthodox Church deacon who often clashes with church hierarchy. “Unfortunately, today we can see that an official church spokesman has crossed that border.” Russia’s embattled liberals tore into Chaplin online. “I respect all religions and all believers, but they have no privileges over me — an atheist,” wrote opposition politican Boris Vishnevsky in a blog post on the website of the Echo of Moscow radio station. “We are absolutely equal in a secular state. That’s why we have to say ‘no’ to the church every time it seeks the status of government.”

“A Christian must not be afraid to speak the truth of the Gospel,” Chaplin told me, as our conversation wound down, when I quizzed him on his talent for controversy. “And this truth is not always politically correct. But today this is the only way to reach those people who live in the wrong way and do not even suspect this.”

Four days after our interview, Islamic State gunmen brought war to the streets of Paris, killing at least 130 people in a series of coordinated attacks. Was that night of horror the “catastrophe” that Chaplin had predicted for the West if it continued down the “monstrous” path of rationalism and secularism? For once, the archpriest has stayed silent.

Photo credit: ANDREY SMIRNOV/AFP/Getty Images

Marc Bennetts is a Moscow-based journalist and author of Kicking the Kremlin: Russia’s New Dissidents and the Battle to Topple Putin. He tweets @marcbennetts1.

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